A perennial topic of interest every draft season are class superlatives– the best skaters, shooters, playmakers, and puckhandlers in the draft. We touched on two of these– the best skaters and shooters– in our inaugural Prospect Panel here at The Prospect Network, but as a subject that always draws so much attention, I felt that these superlatives deserved a more detailed, in-depth discussion.
Best Skater — Lucas Raymond (RW, SHL)
As an offensively-loaded draft, the 2020 class is filled to the brim with high-level skaters. Alexis Lafreniére, Quinton Byfield, Lucas Raymond, Antonio Stranges, Jean-Luc Foudy, Jamie Drysdale– even guys better known for other aspects of their games like Alexander Holtz and Tim Stützle are extremely mobile.
There are several aspects of skating– a guy like Jean-Luc Foudy might be the fastest in the draft, Quinton Byfield has a strong argument for the most powerful stride, and Antonio Stranges has the best command of his edges. But the best *skater*– the guy who best combines all of these aspects– has to be Lucas Raymond, the Swedish speedster (swedester).
A multi-threat, extremely well-rounded player, Raymond has no shortage of offensive options but his foot speed is unquestionably the most dangerous one. He’s a terrific skater– as I’ve said in the past, Raymond’s skating grades as a 75 on a 20-80 scale, just one tier short of generational; or as I like to refer to it as: Connor McDavid.
He may not be the absolute quickest or the most powerful, but Raymond’s blend of elite-level speed, lateral agility, and lightning-quick acceleration is terrifying. He’s nothing short of dominant through the neutral zone, mixing his blazing speed with side-to-side movement. Having to match Raymond’s vertical speed while backpedaling as a defender is already tough enough, but when the defenseman has to match Raymond laterally as well, it becomes much more difficult to pull off.
Raymond is near-flawless mechanically, exhibiting perfect knee bend; excellent alignment between his shoulder, knee, and toe; and maintaining a low centre of gravity and low posture. His first step explosiveness stems from that posture– his knee bend; stance on the balls of his feet; outstanding stride angle and leg extensions (Raymond’s stride finishes outwards rather than straight back, which compromises a lot of power).
In addition to his straight-away stride, Raymond possesses extremely advanced edges. He has exceptional command of his inner edge, allowing him to make hard cuts in both directions without sacrificing balance or speed. His outside edge is on a similar level– the strength of that edge on his final extension of his trailing leg is what makes his crossovers so powerful, and what allows him to change directions on a dime.
Look how Raymond is able to slice apart opposing defences with his feet. He generates speed through quick sequences of crossovers and easily penetrates the slot. When he’s moving that fast, there isn’t much you can do to stop him– very few NHL defenders can even match that kind of speed while moving backwards.
With that kind of mobility, Raymond will be a beast in transition at the NHL level. Comparing him to William Nylander seems a little lazy, but the elite transitional ability and well-rounded offensive portfolio is similar to that of the Leafs’ star winger.
Best Shooter — Alexander Holtz (RW, SHL)
After picking Raymond as the top skater, I’m going right back to Sweden for the best shooter. Alexander Holtz and Noel Gunler are in a dead heat for this honour, but after my cop-out in our panel where I didn’t actually pick anyone, I’m going to go with Holtz.
It’s hard to articulate just how close the two players are in this department. Both have releases that can be categorized as nothing short of filthy, as well as the power and accuracy to consistently pick corners and put the puck past the goaltender. I think Gunler is the slightly more versatile scorer– able to get shots off regardless of the defensive circumstances– but Holtz is better shooting off the move and has a slightly more powerful shot.
Holtz’ power comes from two things: his weight transfer and the push/pull action of his top and bottom hand during his release.
That weight transfer is illustrated quite well in this clip. He receives the puck behind him, loads on his back foot, and explosively shifts his weight forwards.
But what’s most impressive about Holtz’ shooting ability is when he doesn’t have the time or space to execute a complete weight transfer. Even when shooting off one foot or off balance, Holtz manages excellent power and accuracy on his shots.
In the clip above, Holtz is forced off balance by the backchecking defender, but he’s still able to bury the shot. He shoots the puck so hard that it immediately comes bouncing back out the other way.
On this play, Holtz receives a pass in the high slot, curls and drags, and sends an absolute laser into the net while on the move. For a player to create this much power on a “catch-and-shoot” shot with his feet facing the opponent’s net– that’s a level of natural ability that very few players possess.
Holtz has legitimate 40 goal potential (and I don’t say that about players who don’t deserve it), and that’s in large part to his shooting ability. He has other tools that enable the use of his shot– his instincts, hands, and skating ability– but you don’t score goals at an elite level without an elite-level shot.
Best Playmaker — Alexis Lafreniére (LW, QMJHL)
The consensus #1 prospect in the draft, Lafreniére had to be somewhere in this article. Lafreniére‘s primary selling point is his hockey IQ, and a lot of that intelligence shows in his playmaking. I considered including another category specifically for 2020’s most intelligent player, but there would be a whole lot of overlap between the two write-ups here.
The winger creates a lot of chances with his skating, hands, and passing touch, but he wouldn’t be anywhere near as dangerous of a playmaker without his intelligence. Lafreniére has an incredible sense for the status of his teammates– where they are, where they’re going, and the amount of time and space available to them. He’s able to identify passing options sometimes even before he recieves the puck, allowing him to pick apart defences with rapid puck movement, catching them off-guard and out of position.
Here’s a nice example of that. Lafreniére receives a pass in the high slot and immediately one-touches it to his teammate right on the doorstep for a goal. The defender is just reacting to the initial pass to Lafreniére and is left spinning hopelessly as the puck is buried in his net. Lafreniére takes a 3-on-2 with heavy backchecking pressure– a good opportunity, don’t get me wrong, but far from a sure goal– and turns it into a one-on-one chance for his teammate.
Lafreniére does a terrific job identifying passing lanes and holes in the opposing defence. If the opposition misses an assignment or fails to close an opening, Lafreniére will take advantage. He doesn’t miss those kind of opportunities– he’s too intelligent and talented for that.
This one was probably the most clear-cut of any so far– no other draft eligible really comes close to matching Lafreniére’s ability as a distributor. He’s the most intelligent player in the draft, and he does an unbelievable job translating that intelligence into assists. Lucas Raymond might’ve had an outside shot, but Lafreniére is practically running away with this one.
Best Hands — Antonio Stranges (LHC/LW, OHL)
Stranges is right up there with Raymond for the title of best skater, and now I have him as the best puckhandler. With his incredible ability to corral passes and loose pucks, Alexis Lafreniére was a worthy candidate here, but I wanted to focus more on the actual puckhandling element– the ability to deceive defenders with quick, creative handles.
As far as that ability goes, I feel that Stranges is quite comfortably the best. With his quick hands and generous use of the heel-to-heel skating stride, no draft-eligible even comes close to paralleling Stranges’ creativity and deceptive element with the puck.
The London Knights forward is absolutely lethal in one-on-one situations with the goaltender, converting on three of his four shootout attempts last season. He perfectly coordinates his puck skills with his edgework and skating ability, approaching the net from sharp angles and putting his quick hands to work. His hand-eye coordination and control of his stick is nothing short of insane– I can’t even imagine how much of a mess I would make attempting some of these moves.
If you’re looking for the nastiest hands in junior hockey then #2020NHLDraft eligible Antonio Stranges might be your guy. He has some of the best dekes and finesse in the OHL. Here’s a highlight reel of his shootout moves. Also, if anyone knows what his shootout % is then lmk. pic.twitter.com/tXduqlDocd
— TPEHockey (@TPEHockey) January 7, 2019
And then we have this play, which might just be the craziest shootout goal I’ve ever seen (as many have pointed out, the goal would be illegal under NHL shootout rules because we just aren’t allowed to have nice things):
— TPEHockey (@TPEHockey) July 24, 2019
Stranges integrates these puck skills into open-ice play as well, putting them to use on zone entries and within the offensive zone. Stranges might be the only OHL player who would find a way to maintain possession through a sequence like this one:
— Caitlin Berry (@caitlinsports) February 3, 2019
Stranges played in a bottom-six role for London last season, forced down the lineup on a very deep Knights roster. As he proves himself in a larger role this season– he already has 7 points in his first 4 games– he should fly up draft boards. He doesn’t just have the best hands either– he’s probably the most entertaining player in the entire draft.
Feature Photo Credit: Tom Szczerbowski / Getty Images